Monday, 21 January 2019

Quote of the day - P J O'Rourke on trade...

This is it...
Trade is so basic that we don’t think about it at all. Or, if we do think about it, the thinking gets hard. Trade is such a fundamental truth – like the fact that the universe exists at all – that our imaginations have trouble grasping it.

The meaning of trade is that a single human is almost incapable of making or doing anything without exchanging goods and services with other humans. Robinson Crusoe would have come a cropper if not for the shipwreck from which to “import” goods and his man Friday to perform the minimum-wage services. The Swiss Family Robinson would have been the Dead Family Robinson if they hadn’t had a big family full of people swapping their various skills, abilities, and knowledge.
Not about deals. Not about treaties. No lawyers anywhere. Just people interacting with other people to mutual benefit. This is why free markets work - cooperation, collaboration, exchange. Whatever you do, don't let governments stop this - let's stay free humans not slaves.


Welcome to Hotel California: ASI's proposals for more microflats

Those lovely consequentialist neoliberals over at the Adam Smith Institute have come up with their latest wheeze to solve London's houisng problems - really tiny flats:
Living in micro-homes could "expand choice" for young professionals and help tackle London's housing crisis, a report has suggested.

A neoliberal think tank is calling for the Greater London Authority (GLA) to scrap its rules on minimum floor space.

The Adam Smith Institute said homes in the capital with less than 37 sq m of floor space could be an "affordable opportunity" for young people.
Now I appreciate (and the ASI make this point in their report) that our neoliberal friends also want a "profound reform of housing regulation" but the problem with the microflats idea is that it gives another excuse for housing's key problem (lack of land supply) to be ducked by authorities. It's also likely that, despite the ASI saying Londoners were "comfortable with living in smaller apartments", this covers over another problem with housing supply - even if we build good numbers of new homes, if they're flats we're not meeting the need for family housing.

A decade ago my colleague Huw Jones (former strategic housing guru for Leeds City Council among other achievements) talked about the idea of shared living as a stepping stone from being a student (where micro-flats with shared facilities are the norm) to regular housing. Huw would point out that shared living allows for that social environment that young people living alone desire (without the 'on top of eachother' problems with flat sharing). So the ASI's idea isn't without its merits.

The problem is the transition - moving on from renting a small apartment into family housing - is increasingly difficult for many young people earning good money in big cities like London (and increasingly Edinburgh, Manchester, Bristol and Birmingham). Unless there is this transition the effect of increasing the supply of rented flats (whether micro- or not) is to create Hotel California - "you can check out any time you want but can't ever leave".

The winners under such as situation are not the young people paying big rents for a well-proportioned cupboard with a window but the businesses renting these micro-flats out. Not only do microflats increase the rental yield but, by providing "communal amenities such as games rooms and open living spaces", a further yield generator is provided - the service charge (justified because someone has to clean the shared space, look after any equipment and manage programmed maintainence).

Microflats can be added to a series of other wheezes - densifying suburbs, taller towers, more council housing, subsidised mortgages, rent controls - that give excuses to the wealthy folk living in London's green belt. Excuses that allow MPs to say stuff like this piece of spectacular NIMBYism from Crispin Blunt:
The proposed Redhill Aerodrome development is not an isolated issue. Under the current planning system, local authorities such as Reigate and Banstead and Tandridge, situated in the Green Belt, are being put under unreasonable pressure to build unrealistic numbers of new homes by the Planning Inspectorate. Leaders of all 11 Surrey borough and district councils agree that most of Surrey is heavily constrained by the Green Belt and other important designations, imposing severe limitations on their ability to meet local housing targets.
This (not allowing the owners of previously developed land like aerodromes to realise value and develop much needed housing) is the problem and building microflats in Battersea or Camden will only give the Crispin Blunts of this world another excuse to pretend that housing need for London can be met without thousands of new family homes in Surrey (or Kent or Berkshire or Hertfordshire or Buckinghamshire).


Saturday, 19 January 2019

Older white men are wrong

OK it's Twitter which is not in the slightest bit representative of the real world (as my wife puts it about political twitter - at best it's one in ten, probably less, and not even a representative tenth either) but the manner in which debate is conducted long ceased to have much connection with the actual ideas, arguments or opinions that are presented. It's all about who (or what) you are...

I wrote a slightly polemical piece about veganism in response to the cavalcade of pro-vegan pieces in the media prompted by the barking mad ideas of the EAT-Lancet Commission. As ever, I'm happy with some kick back, with people pointing out flaws in my argument or presenting alternative evidence, research or opinion. But this is what I got:
The most interesting aspect to the vegetarian/vegan debate is the utter outrage by older white men towards a lifestyle that focuses on improving health and trying to reduce the suffering of animals.
The thing with this is that it shifts the argument away from what I wrote (vegan diets are unhealthy, don't really help the planet and animals will still die) and, instead, tells me I'm just an old white man motivated by some sort of spiteful anger at younger cooler folk who don't eat meat. What matters is my identity - older white man - not the content of my argument.

I guess (although I try not to get too tangled up in postmodernism) that this is a sort of "everything is about motive" argument - I would say that, I'm an older white bloke. We see the same with other debates - Diane Abbott suggesting it's racist to tell her she's wrong (albeit on this occasion she probably wasn't) or saying to researchers at free market think tanks that, in effect, they wouldn't write in support of those free markets if shadowy rich people weren't pulling their strings.

The "old white man"statement is most commonly used as a dismissal - 'look at this idiot, typical of gammons' - rather than in any way reflecting the argument. After all old white blokes come in a variety of forms and a multitude of opinions - Jeremy Corbyn is an older white bloke as is Michel Barnier and, of course, the billionaire funding the EAT-Lancet nonsense is another older white man. I'm not going to get into silly stuff about how gammon or "old white man" is racist (it probably is but it doesn't really matter) but the term is used with the aim of excluding a significant chunk of our population from being allowed to have an opinion. Old white man are wrong so we can be rude to them, dismiss them and make fun of them. And in doing so sideline any views of arguments they may hold that you don't like.


Friday, 18 January 2019

Vegan diets are unhealthy, don't help the environment and lots of animals still die. We should stop indulging their propaganda.

It has become terribly faddish to be a vegan. Hardly a day passes without another TV show featuring some sort of vegan promotion. We're told that being vegan is healthy, environmentally responsible and, of course, morally superior to the old-fashioned human diet filled with animal products. The latest in this stream of propaganda come the other day with the supposedly planet saving 'healthy reference diet' proposed by the EAT-Lancet Commission:
The Commission quantitively describes a universal healthy reference diet, based on an increase in consumption of healthy foods (such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, legumes, and nuts), and a decrease in consumption of unhealthy foods (such as red meat, sugar, and refined grains) that would provide major health benefits, and also increase the likelihood of attainment of the Sustainable Development Goals.
It's true that these folk aren't proposing that we should all be forced into eating a vegan diet (although they do suggest lots of draconian choice-reduction enforced by government) but the arguments are familiar and move on from the traditional "don't kill animals" position of vegans to a more nuanced morality tale about saving the planet and eating healthily. It is still, however, vegetarian propaganda wrapped up as science. EAT is funded by a couple of Norwegian billionaires (they paid Bill Clinton 3.5m Norwegian Krone to speak at one of their conferences) and funds a familiar collection of researchers:
Take Christiana Figueres, former Executive Secretary of the United Nations’ Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). She has compared meat eaters to smokers - who likewise were once role models but later became pariahs - and believes that they should be having their meal outside of the restaurant. Or Harvard's professor Walter Willett, who has claimed that one in three early deaths could be saved if we all gave up meat, and Oxford's vegan researcher Marco Springmann who has called for a meat tax to prevent over “220,000 deaths” and save billions in healthcare costs.
This comes from a review of the EAT-Lancet Commission proposals published in the newsletter of the European Food Agency. The review by food scientist Frédéric Leroy and sociologist Martin Cohen concludes:
The initial effect of the EAT-Lancet campaign seems to be not so much to promote animal welfare as to open up for “Big Ag” lucrative new markets and feed the hunger of governments for new tax bases. What start as academic and scientific debates become political arguments that are dangerously simplistic and may have several detrimental consequences for both health and the environment.
This points us to the core issue with vegan and near-vegan diets - they are unhealthy, probably do little for the environment and almost certainly are bad for the planet's animals. It has always struck me as ridiculous to pretend that we can inhabit the planet without, at some point, killing animals. Moreover, vegans seem to make an almost arbitrary distinction between types of animals - keeping livestock is wrong but it's all fine to drive at 70 mph along the M6 while slaughtering hundreds of innocent flies. And how many little beasts are killed by the arable farmer in growing, harvesting and preparing that quinoa, soy or rice?

Humans have had a close relationship with livestock for thousands of years and cows, sheep, pigs and poultry shared our lives from prehistoric times. Indeed keeping animals makes sense as crop scientist, Dr Sarah Taber points out in a tweet - "when produce is too far gone to sell & there's no processing market (say, melons), it often gets fed to livestock. That's…actually a lot of the point of livestock, historically. They eat stuff we can't & turn it into meat, milk, & eggs that we can."

The idea of a balanced diet means perhaps eating more vegetables and less meat but vegan foods are commonly highly processed and require the addition of supplements to replace the nutrition lost from not eating meat or dairy. And, as Joanna Blythman points out, most of the pastureland in places like the UK simply isn't suitable for growing anything but grass:
But wet, green Britain lends itself to livestock production. Huge upland swathes of the country are quite incapable of growing food crops, but this otherwise agriculturally useless land can be grazed by cattle, sheep, goat, deer and other game. When meat and milk comes from predominantly free-ranging, grass-fed animals, this isn't stealing mountains of grain out the mouths of people, but harnessing natural resources to produce quality, healthy food.
Despite this the vegan propagandists are given a free ride but the media - nobody challenges Marco Springmann when he makes sweeping claims about the health benefits or a vegan diet (or rather the disbenefits of eating meat) or extravagent claims about the impact of livestock on climate change. And we're expected to change our choices and habits because a few people have adopted this pretty stupid dietary choice while their propagandists tell us meat-eaters that we're morally reprehensible humans.

The EAT-Lancet report has been beautifully ridiculed by Chris Snowdon but everywhere else - the BBC, ITV, radio and broadsheet newspapers - has treated it as a genuine contribution to science rather than as a piece of propaganda produced by vegan extremists.


Thursday, 17 January 2019

My Dad died last year. It seems some remainers are gleeful about this...

Your politics is very troubled if it takes you to a place where you wish your opponents - "the enemy" - dead. Yet this is precisely where we've got to with the Remain side of Brexit:
Enough old leavers will have died and enough young remainers will have come on to the electoral register to turn the dial on what the country thinks about Brexit.
This doesn't come from some little blog but from the UK's leading progressive news platform, The Guardian written by one of its star - and very well paid - columnists, Polly Toynbee. This position - we'll get what we want once all those unpleasant old people in provincial towns have pegged it - it a deeply unpleasant one. It sits alongside the idea - most recently from singer, Jamelia, that old people should have the franchise removed because, y'know, they'll be dead before the effects of their votes are truly felt.


Now the person who did this unthinkingly unpleasant site has taken it down claiming that he didn't mean to be nasty to people who are dying (they aren't, of course, all nasty old brexity people) or to the families of people who lost close relatives since the referendum. As far as I know, my Dad voted to leave and he died last year making him one of Polly and her pals gleeful statistics. I miss his wit and wisdom, things gained from a long life including 35 years as a local councillor - the idea that his views and opinions shouldn't have counted because he was at the end of his life is a truly unpleasant and undemocratic idea.

The people putting forward the idea that people dying is something to be celebrated because it suits their political positions demographics consider themselves to be intelligent, moderate, caring people. What these views show is that, in some respects, they are far more dangerous and damaging for our liberty and democracy than the UK's handful of right wing thugs - we sort of expect violent language from the latter but when establishment figures with columns in national newspapers start on the same line, unchallenged by editors or the wider media, alarm bells should ring. Old people are not an inconvenience but part of our society - wishing them dead because you think they might vote the wrong way is repulsive.


Wednesday, 16 January 2019

Like medieval citadels, great cities fuel social disharmony and division

I've talked before about how the big cities that, at present, drive economic growth, act to exclude people. Or, to put it another way, prevent people from being anything other than 21st century peons trapped in small, crowded apartments that eat up £4 in every £10 they're paid. And worse, unlike the past's rural peons, these new urban serfs cannot settle, opt out of having a family and live a sort of 'kidult' existence that is filled with ultimately unfulfilling fun.

The problem is that, when people travel away from the city so as to have a stake in the nation, settle down and raise a family, they find is difficult to maintain the work they had before and quickly discover that (outside the specially privileged world of public sector professionals) the opportunities in affordable places aren't there. This brings me to this quotation from French geographer, Christopher Guilluy:
All the growth and dynamism is in the major cities, but people cannot just move there. The cities are inaccessible, particularly thanks to mounting housing costs. The big cities today are like medieval citadels. It is like we are going back to the city-states of the Middle Ages. Funnily enough, Paris is going to start charging people for entry, just like the excise duties you used to have to pay to enter a town in the Middle Ages.
Guilluy uses this, in part, to explain the "gilets jaunes" protests in France but also transfers the effect elsewhere - to the UK's Brexit vote, to the election of Donald Trump, and to the new Italian government. While, Guilluy speaks most commonly of the working class, it's clear that the protest movements (whether on the streets as in France or in the voting booth as in Italy) extend to a wider group of those excluded from what I once called "The Great City of the West":
There's no actual reason, other than our sociable nature, for us to live in those 'Great Cities of the West'. Indeed, they're filled with untypical humans. There are the brave few who upped sticks and travelled thousands of miles to live poor quality lives on the fringes of the gleaming, sparkly city hoping for a lucky chance. We've the fortunate beneficiaries of inheritance or beauty who can skim across the surface of the city enjoying its lights and pleasures while affording the means to avoid its darkness. And there's a vast mass of clever, skilled, hard-working people who turn the wheels of the city's economy but can't get a stake in the city, can't find the means to settle and have a family, and who justify this on the basis that they can get to see the beauties in their plays, galleries and stadiums.
Out in the provinces - sneered at by the grand city folk - there's a different culture emerging. In part this is fuelled by anger at the denial of opportunities but it is also about the reforming of community and of a hope that politics will bring the cities to their senses and allow the idea of an inclusive democracy back into our culture. Meanwhile the wealthy elite call for the over 75s to have their vote removed or for people to have to take a test to earn the right to vote - the desire is to exclude the less educated, the old, the working class from power, to return us - in the name of progressive politics - to a world before the extension of the franchise to workers in 1918.

Just as, before the trade unions and their socialist and social democrat party offspring, workers lacked a voice, today people in small town England, in la France périphérique, rust belt USA and Italy's crumbling industrial cities lack a voice. Yes they are working class but it is broader than this, as Guilluy describes:
They tend to be people in work, but who don’t earn very much, between 1000€ and 2000€ per month. Some of them are very poor if they are unemployed. Others were once middle-class. What they all have in common is that they live in areas where there is hardly any work left. They know that even if they have a job today, they could lose it tomorrow and they won’t find anything else.
If the establishments of the west want to avoid upheaval, they need to find a way to respect - listen to, heed - the voice of these people. Above all we need to stop patronising them as the "left behind" or worse and to realise that the great cities of the west will need them. The great and good must stop making the city such a barrier to having a real, cash stake in society.


Monday, 14 January 2019

No leadership, childishness and deception - how MPs are destroying the trust that's central to democracy

Trust. That's it, the central, essential requirement for democracy to work. People have to trust that their friends and neighbours will behave responsibly and that the people who we send to parliament as our representatives will do, more or less, what they said they'll do. I know, I know, I can hear you: "Simon, what are you drinking, people never trust politicians...": or words to that effect. I suspect, however, that this probably ain't so - there's always been a loud minority who thought politicians were selfish, on the take, charlatans but most people, if they ever gave the matter thought, saw politicians as grand but essentially decent folk.

Yesterday I concluded that we're pretty close to the point where this trust, always a fragile thing, collapses. Three things led me there - watching "Brexit: the uncivil war", seeing interviews with Harlow residents on Sky News and reading Dominic Grieves 2017 election statement. And before we start this isn't about Brexit right or wrong but about whether the people feel able to affect change in a democracy - can trust those they elect to respect how they vote.

I won't go into a whole review of "Brexit: the uncivil war" - suffice it to say that I enjoyed it but felt it was (other than a truly dire scene supposedly set in Jaywick - it's always Jaywick isn't it) too focused on the battle between teams of Westminster insiders rather than on an amazing campaign mostly conducted by regular voters without reference to politicians. It was also spoiled by a silly bit of text at the end suggesting the leave campaign did something evil and malign (it didn't).

Anyway, the important bit isn't the accuracy or otherwise of the drama but the final minutes set in a future inquiry where Dominic Cummings played by Benedict Cumberbatch rants about how nobody had the intelligence, initiative or aspiration to take hold of the 2016 vote and shape it into a real change for Britain. The Cummings character, close to camera, says that a vote to change how we did politics was seen as just something to be managed within the existing political culture. Politicians - leave and remain - were unable to grasp that voters, including scruffy ones in ramshackle shacks by the Essex seaside, were telling us the way we do politics needs to change and that maybe we'd get better government if we paid them some actual attention.

Meanwhile, Sky News had toddled off to Harlow - Essex again as it's not too inconvenient as they can get back to West London to take Jocasta to dance class - where they did vox pops with voters. Sophie Ridge, the presenter, shared clips on social media and these told the same tale as we heard from that end piece in "Brexit: the uncivil war". Politicians are useless buffoons, they need to get on with the job and stop behaving like children. And (trust me on this one) this sentiment is repeated everywhere by leave and remain voters alike. It's accompanied by a growing view that, not only will Brexit not happen but that people will have less power in future because they had the audacity to vote for something their lords and masters didn't want.

Yet despite this, MPs have, time and time again, voted (by slim majorities admittedly) to stop any resolution to Brexit that didn't conform to their view - incidentally, given they are mostly remain supporters, a view that is directly contradictory to the way the majority of the people voted. Every possible variant of legal and procedural sophistry has been employed, all with the intent of stopping the government from implementing the result of the 2016 referendum. And this brings me to the third thing from yesterday because it features Dominic Grieve, one of the leading confounders of that democratic vote in June 2016. There are plenty of others to choose from but I happened to read what Grieve had said to his electorate in the 2017 General Election - here's a chunk:
As someone who has always advocated a close relationship between the UK and the European Union, I accept the result of the 2016 Referendum. I therefore strongly support the Prime Minister’s determination to secure a negotiated arrangement for leaving the EU and for forging a new trading relationship for the future, providing certainty for trade and business whilst giving us control of migration and releasing us from the direct effect of EU Law. I also believe that the people of our country will benefit from a close continuing relationship with a strong EU and I will work to help build these important links for our future. I very much hope, therefore, that the Prime Minister will be able to achieve something close to the goals she set out in her speech at Lancaster House in February.
I challenge anyone to find in this, or indeed in the rest of Grieve's message, anything that justifies how he has behaved in parliament since that election. The address in question - especially given how clear the Conservative manifesto was on the matter - is a colossal act of deception because, as subsequent events have shown, Grieve had every intention of spending the forthcoming parliament manipulating rules and procedures to try and prevent Brexit.

These three examples all speak to the relationship between the electorate and their representatives with the public justifiably exasperated by what's gone on, irritated by the childishness of MPs (and their friends in the mainstream media) and desperate for somebody to grasp the opportunity of reframing the relationship between voter and politician in favour of the voter and away from the tribal elites in the Westminster bubble.

As I said at the start, trust is central to democracy. It seems that, unless something dramatic happens pretty soon, politicians in Westminster, by repeatedly ignoring voters concerns and interests, will finally have lost the last vestiges of respect as well as the public's trust. What will happen at this point isn't clear - I'm not expecting thousands to take to the streets as they have in France but I do expect a new sort of politician - blunt, cynical and populist - to arrive. And the first place they'll arrive is in local Conservative associations.